The Big Trail (1930)

The Big Trail
John Wayne in 'The Big Trail'

'The Big Trail' is a Western movie made in 1930, generally regarded as the first great Western epic, and one of the first to be shot on location. It was directed by Raoul Walsh and starred John Wayne, aged 23, in his first leading man role. The movie was an expensive widescreen production which fared badly at the box office, not because of poor quality but due to the fact that movie theaters needed special projectors and screens to show the new widescreen formats. It was Wayne's big break but the film's failure left him sidelined and he worked in 'B' movies for the next 10 years until becoming a star with 'Stagecoach' in 1939.

The movie has more recently come back into favor and is now regarded as a classic of early realistic moviemaking. In 2006, it was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.


The action takes place along the Oregon Trail, the main land route from Missouri to the Pacific coast, where a young scout, Breck Coleman played by John Wayne, leads a large wagon train of settlers, and helps them face and overcome many obstacles such as flooded rivers and steep cliffs, hostile indians, a snow storm and a burning desert. There are three villains within the wagon train, headed by wagon master Red Flack, played by Tyrone Power, Sr., and Breck has to deal with them as well. There is also a love interest for him in the shape of lovely Ruth Cameron, played by Marguerite Churchill.

Main Cast

John Wayne ... Breck Coleman
Marguerite Churchill ... Ruth Cameron
El Brendel ... Gus
Tully Marshall ... Zeke
Tyrone Power, Sr. ... Red Flack
David Rollins ... Dave "Davey" Cameron
Frederick Burton ... Pa Bascom
Ian Keith ... Bill Thorpe
Charles Stevens ... Lopez
Louise Carver ... Gus's mother-in-law
John Big Tree ... Indian Chief
Even at the age of twenty-three, and in his first leading role, John Wayne has the charisma, authority and raw talent to make this film his own. The qualities which would later make him a major star are all displayed. Marguerite Churchill is an ideal foil as a beautiful Southern belle and Tyrone Power Sr., in his only sound film, makes a wonderfully hateful villain. Other excellent performances are seen by Tully Marshall as mountain man Zeke, Russ Powell, El Brendel and David Rollins. Ward Bond, stalwart of many future Wayne films is seen in walk-on roles in many scenes.


Even with a box office success the film would almost certainly have made a loss due to its expensive and experimental production methods. Each scene had to be shot twice, once with a conventional lens and then again in the new "Grandeur" widescreen process. If this weren't enough, in this new era of Talkies, each scene containing dialogue had to be filmed in French and German, as well as in English, with different casts each time. It was a desperately expensive way to shoot a movie.

Raoul Walsh went to great lengths to make the film authentic, and much research was done to ensure that the clothes, wagons, animals and food depicted were all realisitic. As the scenes shown were still within living memory of many of the actors, the result is an extraordinary vivid living history.

The Big Trail is an unexpectedly good film, even for today's sophisticated filmgoer. It is an uncomplicated tale of human dignity and heroism, and it is performed by a talented cast. It is excellent entertainment.


Director ... Raoul Walsh
Producer ... Winfield R. Sheehan
Screenplay ... Marie Boyle, Jack Peabody, Florence Postal, Fred Sersen
Written by ... Hal G. Evarts (story)
Music ... Arthur Kay, Reginald Hazeltine Bassett, Peter Brunelli, Alfred R Dalby, Jack Virgil
Cinematography ... Lucien Andriot, Arthur Edeson
Distribution Company ... Fox Film Corporation
Format ... B & W
Release date ... November 1, 1930
Running time ... 108 minutes

Academy Awards

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